Alaska Town Mourns Soldiers Lost in Copter Crash

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Four Alaska Army National Guard soldiers died when their Blackhawk helicopter crashed over the weekend in Iraq. Their hometown is devastated by the loss. Ashley Gross of the Alaska Public Radio Network has this story.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

The crash of a Black Hawk helicopter in Iraq last Saturday took the lives of eight soldiers and four civilians. Four of the soldiers who were killed came from the Alaska Army National Guard. As Ashley Gross of the Alaska Public Radio network reports, the loss is being felt deeply in the state.

ASHLEY GROSS reporting:

Burgers sizzle on the grill at this Tastee Freez restaurant just down the road from Kulis Air National Guard base in Anchorage. A large billboard outside reads: Please Pray For Our Four Army Guard Members Lost In Iraq. Inside, it's lunchtime and almost half the customers are in military uniform.

Unidentified Man #1: Welcome to Tastee Freez. May I take your order, please, sir?

Unidentified Man #2: Yeah. I'll take a number one.

Unidentified Man #1: Number one?

Unidentified Man #2: Yeah.

GROSS: At a table by the window, Air Guard Master Sergeant Jennifer Keyes(ph) sits and recounts the past few nerve-racking days. Her husband's brother is in the same company in Iraq as the four Army Guard members who died.

Master Sergeant JENNIFER KEYES (Air National Guard): It hit close to home because it brought home the reality that this could really happen, that a loved one could be hurt or killed over there.

GROSS: Tastee Freez owner Rich Owens says even though Anchorage has an Air Force base and an Army base, the community feels closest to the National Guard.

Mr. RICH OWENS (Owner, Tastee Freez): We like to think of the Guard as like the home folks and that's exactly what they are. And so when we lose a Guards person, then it hits home a little bit differently I think.

GROSS: The Guard says that till now it hasn't lost any members in combat since at least World War II. The Black Hawk helicopter went down near the northern city of Tall'Afar. The Army is investigating the crash, but Guard officials say thunderstorms may have played a role.

Guard members say they have no doubts about the skills of the two pilots. One was 44-year-old Chief Warrant Officer Chester Troxel, a member of the Guard for half his life. His friend, Tom Coba(ph), describes him as a devout Christian devoted to his wife and teen-age son and daughter.

Mr. TOM COBA: Probably the most meaningful thing he said to me was `If anything happens to me over there, I want you to take care of my kids and keep them on the straight and narrow,' and I'm sure he said that to other friends, too. But I'm going to try to do my part and helping his family as much as I can.

GROSS: Sitting next to Troxel in the cockpit was a former rodeo queen, 25-year-old First Lieutenant Jamie Campbell. She came from a military family. Her husband, Sam Campbell, is an Army captain serving in Mosul. Her father, Jeff Krozey(ph), is a member of the Washington National Guard, also just back from Iraq. Krozey says he found out about his daughter's death from his son-in-law Sunday morning.

Mr. JEFF KROZEY: Jamie called him every morning about 5. And Sunday morning, she never called or e-mailed. And he thought that was really--you know, something was wrong. So he called down there and they told him that a helicopter was missing and it was hers.

GROSS: The state is also mourning the two crew chiefs on board. Twenty-two-year-old Specialist Jacob Nelson was born and raised in Alaska and had just gotten married last July. Guard Chaplain Rick Cook(ph) says he met Nelson a few years ago when they manned a recruiting booth together at the state fair. Cook says he urged Nelson to get a full-time job with the Guard.

Chaplain RICK COOK: And I wasn't even sure he was really listening to me. He was just a teen-age kid and he probably thought I was an old fogy or something, but, you know, I kept seeing him over the next couple of years, and, lo and behold, he had actually gotten a full-time job.

GROSS: The other crew chief was 26-year-old Specialist Michael Edwards who moved to Alaska from the Bronx with the Army. He joined the Guard after leaving the Army. Sergeant First Class Herbert Bloomer(ph) was one of Edwards' platoon sergeants in Fairbanks. Bloomer says after learning the news, he decided to give the mother of Edwards' son, Elijah, a memento.

Sergeant First Class HERBERT BLOOMER: I had an extra set of dog tags I had in his file that I handed to her to give to his six-year-old son and that's kind of when it hit me then. I didn't linger very long in that conversation. I excused myself and had to leave. I was tore up a little bit at that point.

GROSS: Tomorrow, a different company of 130 Alaska Army National Guard members returns from Baghdad after a yearlong deployment. It will be a welcomed if bittersweet homecoming.

For NPR News, I'm Ashley Gross in Anchorage.

MICHELE NORRIS (Host): You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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